Times Staff Writer

Artist Paul Cadmus was swept to fame on a 1934 tidal wave of indignation. A U.S. Navy official, outraged by Cadmus' lurid painting of carousing sailors on shore leave, claimed the "disreputable drunken brawl" came from "the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service."

"The Fleet's In"--painted during a federally funded art project and hung in Washington's Corcoran Gallery--was removed from public view, but the ruckus ricocheted in the press. Cadmus' hate mail accused him of being a traitor and a perpetrator of "Communist Jew culture," while supporters rallied to his side.

Depression-era notoriety launched Cadmus' career, but his lusty satires--painstakingly painted in egg tempera--haven't landed him major status in American art history. His seamy view of the American scene remains a kinky, homoerotic footnote, only recently revived in David Sutherland's fine hourlong documentary, "Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80."

The 1984 film has been gathering accolades and awards ever since its East Coast premiere and screenings at various festivals. Now the County Museum of Art offers two opportunities to see it locally: Tuesday at 8 p.m., when director-producer Sutherland will introduce the film, and April 27 at 2 p.m.

"Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80" has many virtues. Most important among them are that the artist speaks for himself and that he is not romanticized. We aren't confronted with Dustin Hoffman confessing his ignorance of art, as in the "Strokes of Genius" TV series, or with Kirk Douglas dredging up old footage of himself as Vincent Van Gogh, as in "A Day in the Country."

After a clamorous bout at his retrospective exhibition, we have only to follow Cadmus on Cadmus as he looks back to his youth, visits painting sites, conducts an egg tempera demonstration, strolls the wooded grounds of his Connecticut home and draws his male lover, who also sings while Cadmus accompanies him on a piano.

The impressionistic film flits about a bit too much, but it builds a fully rounded picture of an artist whose work implies one-dimensionality. Cadmus--looking wonderfully fit at 80, in his jeans and blue Shetlands sweater--talks about everything from his admiration for classical drawing to his correspondence with E. M. Forster. Chatting about his art, Cadmus tells of painting "hateful subjects" with "delicacy and precision" and of the necessity of exaggeration.

"People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things," declares the artist who later contradicts himself by saying, "I never aimed to be controversial."

His art is by turns too lewd, too grotesque and too violent to avoid controversy. It is also too well produced and too passionate to be dismissed lightly. As "Sailors and Floozies," "Y.M.C.A. Locker Room," "Subway Symphony," "Seven Deadly Sins" and the particularly brutal "Herrin Massacre" (depicting the slaughter of strike-breaking miners) appear on the screen, we realize that this art still has the power to make us wince and shudder.

Tuesday's screening is free; the April 27 showing is included in the museum's general admission. Information: (213) 857-6135.

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